Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Book Review: How to Make Versions of the Past Present: "Robert A.M. Stern Buildings and Projects 2004-2009"; Peter Morris Dixon, editor

Stern might just be "the squarest of the hip, and the hippest of the squares." That might also imply that he is one of the sanest and happiest people in the profession. For that and more, this book warrants our appreciative attention.

By Norman Weinstein
December 18, 2009

One infelicity of aging is to hear that one’s tastes in art and architecture are “retro.” The inventors of that slander bypass the obvious fact that past artistic achievements are never past – if their essential energies generously inspire contemporary creativity. The poet Ezra Pound wrote: “All ages are contemporaneous,” a very heady assertion that the arts at their most vital look backward precisely to advance. Architecturally, Frank Lloyd Wright studied centuries of Japanese design. And read the opening of Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture and you find lines like “Architecture can be found in the telephone and in the Parthenon.” The “retro” mentality would put the artistic lessons learned from the past inside a box in an antique shop, a dumpster, or a walnut shell.


Truth be told, it has taken years for me to begin to really see Robert A.M. Stern’s designs. This newest humongous monograph, Robert A.M. Stern: Buildings & Projects 2004-2009 (The Monacelli Press, 2009), spanning his recent works has been particularly eye-opening. Who doesn’t know the Stern of the luxury condos and palatial Long Island estates? He’s still designing them – and they still don’t hold my interest except as settings for the next film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. To appreciate Stern’s considerable talent, I also had to get past my abhorrence of Celebration, Florida, connecting New Urbanism with the pop culture that once celebrated Ike, Pat Boone, and June Cleaver.


What overwhelms are Stern’s library designs in recent years. Look at the photographs successively of the Miami Beach, Clearwater, and Jacksonville, Florida, libraries, as well as the bravura drawings for the library integral to the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The various stylistic motifs translated from the past (Art Deco for Miami Beach and classic Modernism for Clearwater) never interfere with the library architecture working as an invitation into an evolving community story, a narrative impulse brilliantly underscored by his design for the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. If Celebration impressed me as a riot of faux-American vernacularism, the Jonesborough project is an example of how to thoroughly integrate (Southern and Midwestern) American vernacular architectural heritage with the needs and tastes of the 21st century.


From another angle: as a former Philadelphian, I have a keen interest in Stern’s sensitivity to Philadelphia. 10 Rittenhouse Square represents a major regeneration of a neglected Philadelphia treasure, a kind of neo-classical office tower scaled properly by someone who understands the city’s bows and curtsies to heritage are something other than New York’s. And with an eye to the future, the Comcast Center, a 58-story obelisk, is a literally shining example of sustainability and high-tech design that respects Philadelphia’s dense downtown history.


The only quibble I have with this capacious book comes from the opening interview Paul Goldberger conducted with Stern. To be fair, Stern credits Goldberger with “pushing” him into new areas of thinking. Goldberger’s questions, to my ear, are flattering rather than probing. It is to Stern’s credit that he essentially interviews himself (think of pianist Glenn Gould if you want a notion of how this is accomplished), and manages to sound considerably more modest and usefully self-critical than Goldberger’s questions might allow. Goldberger avoids really tough-minded questions. For example: How did Stern learn the difference between visually quoting features of past styles superficially vs. integrating the values undergirding historic designs? How can the history of architecture be cherry-picked for more than shock and sound-byte-sized cultural entertainment? If Pound was correct in asserting that “all ages are contemporaneous,” how do you stop yourself from drowning in a raging sea of cacophonous and conflicting architectural approaches? This would have particularly helpful in terms of comprehending the meaning of Stern’s friendship with Peter Eisenman, the man whose writing once gave him headaches, but who he gladly hired years after that pain. And what about the opportunity to design libraries so heightens his creativity? And how much of his sense of classicism is rooted in a deeply personal identification with Jeffersonian democracy?


No matter. Stern ably tells his stories, as do the spectacular photographs and drawings in this weighty tome. Unlike many neo-conservatives who genuflect at a monolithic altar of the past, Stern has a playfully pluralistic relationship to architectural history and contemporary design. And unlike the hippest of the hip, he has no need to dadaistically defy or defame the architectural canon. As the poet Frank O’Hara once characterized himself, Stern might just be “the squarest of the hip, and the hippest of the squares.” That might also imply that he is one of the sanest and happiest people in the profession. For that and more, this book warrants our appreciative attention.



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of the monthly “Words That Build” – an exclusive series on focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at


Other books reviewed by Weinstein:


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism 
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.


Best Architecture Books of 2009
10 crucial volumes from the classic to the iconoclastic


Book Review: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz

A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition – and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.


Book Review: "Urban Design for an Urban Century: Placemaking for People," by Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, and Oliver Gillham 
To the credit of the erudite authors, their sketch of urban design brings levels of political, sociological, and architectural analysis together in a readable synthesis.


Book Review: "Everything Must Move: 15 Years at Rice School of Architecture 1994-2009" 
There’s a Texas flood of architectural ideas that gives ample evidence of an architecture school that unsettles pat assumptions. Who could ask for anything more?


Book Review: A Subversive Book Every Architect Needs: "Architect's Essentials of Negotiation" by Ava J. Abramowitz 
Supposedly architects don't need negotiating skills along with other communication skills because great design "sells itself." How lovely that an AIA legal counsel created this definitive book to shatter that thin myth.


Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.


Best Architecture Books of 2008 
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy.

(click on pictures to enlarge)